Ptarmigan Cirque ‘Golden Larches’ Hike

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Ptarmigan Cirque

Distance
4.2km

Trail type
Loop

Elevation
271m

Level
Easy/moderate

Great for Family Larch Viewing

Ptarmigan Cirque might be the most well known hike in Kananaskis– and highly trafficked– larch viewing hike in K-Country. Its popularity stems from it being a relatively short hike with less of an elevation change than many area trails, making it ideal for families and leisurely hikers. With little effort, there is still such a variety of payoff – on this hike you can see plenty of wildlife, high alpine meadows, mountains and waterfalls. Coupled with the explosion of ‘Golden Larches’ at the end of September and into October, its popularity is easy to understand. Here’s what to expect on the Ptarmigan Cirque trail.

 

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Where is it?

At the apex of Highwood Pass – the highest paved mountain pass in Canada– is the parking lot servicing both Ptarmigan Cirque and Pocaterra Cirque trails. Set out from the lot through Highwood Meadows and the path will take you back across Highway 40 to Ptarmigan (staying left will lead to Pocaterra). Once across the trail, start the loop in a clockwise fashion as you initially make your way through another alpine meadow dotted with wildflowers.

 

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Early Elevation Gain

While the overall gain in elevation is moderate on this hike, the bulk of it occurs within the first kilometer of the trail. The switchback nature of the elevation on the trail make it more accessible than a straight uphill slog would be. So if you’re with children or a slightly older dog, don’t think you’ve read mistaken advice, the trail will level out in no time! 

Through the Forest

The initial ascent of the hike will take you through a coniferous forest containing many larch trees. This will be your initial dose of what you came to this trail at this time of year for. The juxtaposition of golden trees against the ever-green of their cousins is stunning up close. Find a good spot for a picture; see if you can get green and gold in the same shot!

 

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Out Into the Meadow

As the initial climb subsides, the trail empties hikers out into a sublime alpine meadow. The view is stunning all around, but turn to the south and the panorama laid out before you is truly breathtaking. The Kananaskis Valley in all its glory is your feast for the eyes, with the golden splash of larches in the autumn creating a unique vista, as you quickly forget the taxing initial ascent.

Encounter the Cirque

The path through the meadow will lead you to Ptarmigan Cirque (a bowl-like structure created by surrounding mountains) itself. The surrounding 3218m Mount Rae on the north and 2912m Mount Arethusa on the south are dominating structures that conjoin to create a nice, rugged bowl that helps define the loop feature of the overall trail. Hikers will encounter small wildlife and waterfalls and can even choose to scramble up the base of Mount Rae. Remember to turn around at any moment as the epic view of the valley in all its autumn ‘larchness’ is there whenever you want it.

 

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Back on the Loop

The base of the Cirque marks the apex of the Ptarmigan Loop trail, so if you’re not doing the scramble up Mount Rae, continue along the path. Peeking every so often at the larch view on your way down is a reminder why you chose this path, even with the promise of crowds packing the trail at this time of year. Breath in the air and drink in the sights on the easy descent; the ‘Golden Larches’ are a treat for nature lovers, but they’re only available for 3-4 weeks every year. So make sure to get enough of it to last until next September.

See you on the trails!

 

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Tips

  • Check out the 0.1 km interpretive trail at the beginning or end of the hike to learn more about unique alpine meadows and high altitude larch trees
  • This hike attract large crowds during weekends, go midweek or super early morning to avoid!
  • Best time to see the larches is from the 4th week of September to 1st week of October. Any earlier they will still be turning color, any later it will start getting chilly!
  • Bear sightings are not uncommon in this area. Bring bear spray just in case.
  • Completely new to hiking or want some local alpine wisdom? Get a guided tour of the Highwood Pass larch hikes with Kananaskis Outfitters.
  • Grab a lunch before or after at Market Cafe or Forte Restaurant